Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Strength Matters: Another Wee chat with Dan John (part the first)

How do you pick a training approach? There are all sorts of programs out there: in the strength/muscle space, t-nation posts new ones weekly. Indeed, one of t-nations best contributors is Dan John, uber coach. Even Mr John rocks out programs in multiples.  The question of so many programs rather begs the question – which one when?

For example, I was at a workshop a year ago where Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John focused on something they called “easy strength” (book of that title forthcoming). In that protocol, one lifts 5 days a week for forty days, using only “easy” weights, for 2 sets of 5. Easy. The reason? Why to get break through strength gains. Or two days a week. Or perhaps Pavel's three day a week ladders with kettlebells and or waves with deadlifts?
  I have been perplexed by what appear to be contrary maxims for adding strength: to lift heavy one must lift heavy: lift every other day; to gain strength one need only practice easy strength: lift every day.

And if you’re a gal, reading articles written largely about guys, are there differences to consider?

I asked Dan if he could help me unpack some of these seeming contradictions in training council, especially for women athletes. He said “sure: here” and sent me the draft of a forth coming book called “Intervention” - a collection of augmented essays including some of the links above - and invited questions. From reading all these pieces put together in one place it it’s a nice complement to the Intervention DVDs



What's in this Two Parter Interview. What came out of this exchange turned into a lot of material, and so, we'll do this presentations in two parts. In part one (what you're reading now) we talk about the heuristics of evolving one’s strength practice relative to core moves as foundations.

In part 2, we get more specific and look at two worked examples for gals: achieving a baseline equivalent strength of a 125kg deadlift, and especially for the interested RKC women out there, prepping for the Iron Maiden Challenge - the pistol, press and pull up with a 24kg bell. Intriguingly if not surprisingly, the discussion wraps around Dan John’s blend of tuning where health meets fitness. We might DL 125k, but if we don’t floss regularly, well really, rude health or just rude? Intervention The Book is like that.

Intervention - the Approach for Strength (and health)
If you follow Dan’s work on t-nation and elsewhere, you’ll find in Intervention is dialing in – some very “getting back to the basics” posts like the two part-er on 40 things learned in 40 years. Perhaps the biggest take-away from the collection is the role of getting Dan’s five basics dialed in.
Again anyone following Dan will no doubt have this set off by heart:
  •  Push
  • Pull
  •  Hinge
  •  Squat
  • Loaded Carry
Practice these daily, wisely and well and, Dan asserts, good things will happen.  Indeed, that is rather the manifesto claim of Intervention: Dan’s take between Health (visceral wellbeing) and Fitness (fit for a task). Dan’s coaching he says is for fit-ness as opposed to Health. Fitness for athletic tasks. Like throwing things really far (he’s a thrower, he’ll remind you). For which his Rx is the above five.  In intervention he presents in detail the best way to pattern these basic movements. He also gives some benchmarks for knowing when one might move from the patterning of a squat to say, doing an oly snatch.


Intervention - the audience for strength
Dan John talks about intervention for fitness as a lifetime task. If one is talking with him about fitness, he may have famous quick fixes to tune athletic performance, but sometimes those quick fixes mean “oh yes, focus on the squat for two years.” Get ready for the long view.


Why this book now, Mr. John? What are some things you can point to that made you say "i have to do this or i can do this now"
Intervention? I have been writing it since the first day I noticed that I was making progress with less genetics (less puberty at the time, really). I can remember thinking that “these guys have been training with weights for two years, yet I am passing them by. Why?” Then, when I started having success as a coach, others would ask me why I didn’t have a “one size fits all template.” I thought I did! But, people could see that I pushed this here and that there. It was “obvious” to me in some ways. Of course, the big hit was when people…usually idiots…would ask me why I didn’t have grandma Clean and Jerk or whatever. “Well, she can you see, but…”

That big but lead to this work.
You write
"I am also listening to a very important clue: is this a health or a fitness question. If it is “health,” I apologize almost right away because health, as Phil Maffetone explained, is the optimal interplay of the organs. If you choose not to wear a helmet and leap down a mountain side on a bet on some kind of high speed conveyance, I can only do so much. If you have a fitness goal, I perk right up."
So you seem to suggest the coach - at least yourself - is the fitness guy - fit for purpose you say - rather than "health" guy. Why this line between fitness on the one hand and health on the other?
There is no line here. The two concepts in my definition, stolen from Maffetone, work in a unity. My health goal is obvious: to let my body have the tools to stay “optimal.” My current fitness goal is to walk without a limp, get my waistline to 36 inches (37.5 today) and find a sport I can compete in.
Who then is your audience for this particular intervention?
For intervention, the audience is really anyone who is coming to the conclusion that they can do “better” physically. Certainly, fitness professionals can use it, too, but I am looking at this set of tools as a way people can see that by adding a little here, they can get there fitness goals without more, more, more of “this.”

This book is for people who did NOT have me in the 9th Grade. You fought the good fight and you still want to make progress…so what do you do? Well, this book literally gives you the information about how I intervene.
Intervention - the Term. Can we get into a bit more then about what you mean by “intervention”? In the book you mention the concept “intervention” then describe systemic education, then say an intervention begins with a mobility screen. And then mention "tools" to help an athlete cut through "clutter and junk" and focus on their "goals." But intervention also sounds like part of this process is a sanity check around health and fitness, and “fitness in particular” As you say you here “fitness goal”   you perk right up - you can help there - but have a number of stories around health and wellbeing. And dental floss. Hence - what's intervention?
That’s why you need to use the toolkit. So, what is your goal? For me, Dan, you tell me: “World Champ, Discus.” Hell, yes…I’m here for you. If you tell me, “I want to lose “this”” and grab your butt,…not so much enthusiasm from me.

But, for many trainers, they make their living getting people to lose “this.” Now, once we deal with the goal, then I demand that we think “Health or Fitness.” That one second question puts me on a better track to help you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have had people ask me about lifting as a diabetes cure. Hmmm. I think I can support your goals here, but that diabetes issue need medical care. Now, I KNOW I can help you…from my very bones…but let’s make sure you have your blood work done. From there, the tool kit fleshes itself out.
Picking Programs From that foundation of why someone might want an intervention, and the basics that we'll touch on in a moment, how does one come into reading this book who has (perhaps like myself) been reading a lot of articles with a lot of great ideas about training, but that seem to cancel each other out? think about Get strong lifting every day two reps for five sets vs get strong or get hypertrophied by lifting three times a week (really liked the latest t-nation on hypertrophy)? how does one balance these approaches of when-ness.
The truth is a funny thing. In Religious Studies, most of us HATE the idea that “there are many roads to the same truth.” It just doesn't hold up to rigorous study. As always, “what’s my point?” The problem with most trainees is that they tend to look at lifting as a flavor of the month. Actually, it should be “flavor of the day.” My best success is when I work with somebody who has literally slaved away at something for a long time. Then, I “tweak”it and within days I hear “Oh, you are a genius!”

True, of course, but there is more. I have little “genius” when I work with someone who leaps from thing to thing, idea to idea. There is no base…no foundation! So, when someone who needs solid foundational work goes on Pavel’s “Power to the People”program (deadlifts and presses) for a while, we find amazing transformations and I am a genius. Overtrained from ten years of too many hours in the gym? Aha! Two days a week is your ticket, my young friend!

So, you see, program changes illuminate the athlete if, and only if, there has been a foundation “missing” something or overdoing something else. A small change can do wonders. This, of course, is master coaching, if you will: it takes a bit of courage to nod your head and admit that continuing to go South is not going to get you to the North Pole.
Ok if I’m hearing you aright, you’re saying that your program ideas are designed for folks who have been doing something and maybe hit a sticking point: here are some ideas of what you could do to break through – and of course having a coach with good eyes look at one to make a better “different thing to do” is likely faster than trying to do it on one’s own. Check.

Four Steps: Five Moves. In the book you pull in your work on your Four Steps – combinations for those five core movements. One example is a farmers walk with two kettlebells into double kb squats – non stop. Then you have your now famous bat wings and push ups as another combo. So why do anything else than such four step/five move combos if one is not specialising in a sport?
The Four Steps are training ideas. The pattern must be mastered. I can take an advanced athlete and make huge progress simply by making them do Farmer Walks. It is the most basic loaded carry. So, be careful here: don’t “assume” that there is magic in the Four Steps. Well, there is, of course. But, you have to really look at the athlete/person as you have them in front of you. I work with guys who “used to could” bench press a million pounds, but today can’t press 50. We need to get back to patterns here. Sorry.
No apologies necessary. This is an exercise in sense-making and pre-coaching if you will so keen to hear the refinements. Could you give a few examples where you've seen that one change - getting that walk rock solid lead to gains elsewhere - with just that one tweak?
The Loaded Carry
embodied
It is what I make my living on: the throws. We put the Farmer Walk into our practice sessions for throwing. Instead of teaching or talking about big chest and “locked down,” I just have the athlete FW. Then, we pick up the implement and say “remember this?” and off they go. It can change, for the better, an athlete in seconds.
You also talk about your "fave variation" being "really heavy for a great distance"...
I find this question funny in an odd way. As I tell people, like barefoot running, the Loaded Carries are self correcting. It literally can’t get too screwed up. I had one Strongman with the “inability” to lock out overhead, so I made him do Walks with 100 K locked out overhead. The first five steps were a lesson in the body finding an easier way to lock out! So, this “learning” always seems positive. Now, I know that some people with faster things like sleds to will discover ways to screw up, but that is why I hold them back from quick loaded work for a long time. So, pattern, pattern, pattern…then add speed.
Speaking of Speed, you have the the Litvinov sprints in your text - where one sprints out from doing a lift and that your sense is that sprint post lift lets the athlete not think about the lift "too much" but you also focus strongly on quality of reps. That "forget" the lift; just do it and run does seem an advanced post pattern mastered move?
Litvinovs are not done until one masters the patterns, grinds, asymmetry issues and even ballistics on several moves. If you follow my advice, you would never let someone try Litvie work without a fairly good assessment period. From there, you need to end a satori state with the barbell and the ballistic. I can’t be coaching you on “elbows up” or whatever in the front squat, you have to be nailed down technically and focused on the attack.

It is great for football and rugby and combat because of this. If in a collision sport, you get all caught up on your one on one fight and forget the ball carrier, you are worthless.
Got it. Patterns before Closer to Reality. Beyond patterns or perhaps as part of them, you also talk about intensity – both in the book and in your other writing. For instance, you write:

"again, the most obvious lesson of my coaching life has been reinforced: the more intense you can train, the better. Yep, you knew that. So did I. Why then don't we follow the rule?"

Would you care to unpack a bit what you mean by "intensity" Is that also "intent" I ask because in Even Easier Strength, one would sense that effort - not feeling it - not being challenged by load - is a pretty important part of that protocol  so how think about intensity?
I use intensity in the classic sense, percentage of max. But, there is the rub. What is your max? In “Never Let Go,” my favorite chapter might be the one on all the max terms and how we tend to never use the word correctly. Paul Northway, for example, once pointed out that I was using 225 pounds for my first snatch warm up and 315 for my first warm up for the Jerk Off the Rack. I told him: “These are just warm ups.” So, years later, those would be my attempts on the platform! Same guy, different maxs!

So, perception of max and perception of the load are huge points in the Easy Strength program. And, and this is tough, you actually have to do the Easy Strength program to understand it. It’s like dancing. You can talk and write about it, but it might help to actually do it. I was going to say “sex,” but, well, …
Time to talk active recovery perhaps? Moving towards a potentially more dynamic pattern, and programming with patterns, at the Pavel/Dan John workshop last year, we did a whole set on tumbling. You’ve written about the value of the cartwheel – just as a worked example how does this kind of work fit in with the Idea that is Four Steps? Active recovery between sets, or…
Don’t get too caught up in the Four Steps. It is just one way to get people to “condition” with basic patterns and grinds. Tumbling should be taught in its own place. I take two days a month with every athlete to go over fall training (protecting yourself in a fall), tumbling movements, handstands and the various lowest level floor moves. It is an amazing conditioner in all senses of the word. Moreover, it is fun. It makes the body do things on the edge, but in a safe place. Are headstands dangerous? Probably! But, if you find yourself in that position in life from a collision, I have given you a chance to survive it.
          
My interns have told me year in and year out that the tumbling was the thing that tied everything together. I also throw a tumbling run into many of my training workouts, but this has to be something your facility can handle. So, Front Squat, Bench Press, Clean and Cartwheels is a great combo, but you have to have the space and mats to do it.

One last thing: I make a lifetime commitment to my athletes. When they are 80, the fall training they learned may save their life. And I mean that from my very heart…
 I sense the blend of “health” and “fitness.” Interns in your world are?
Interns. Someone who comes out, internship, for a few months to learn how I coach. Non paying, lots of work, lots of homework…great career move!
Patterns - the Concept And just so we’re all on the same page, mastering the patterns is something you’ve mentioned a lot. Can we clarify how you’re understanding patterns? when you say master, do you mean you.ve hit your benchmarks that you provide in the book of particular loads/reps in these movements?
“Patterns” is a word I got from Brett Jones. It is the basic movement…done correctly and pain free. Your follow up question is the one that I get the most confusion from my people: it depends is the exact right answer! Maybe someday I will take the time to chart out age, gender, background, injuries and goals, but the idea of mastery is simply this: get the movement right without pain. Load and reps will be decided but what you need to do from there and, yes, I know that isn’t what people want as an answer!
And on that note
We close today's episode with Dan. Next time, we pick up focusing on women's strength: building equivalence of that sought after 125Kg pull with just kettlebells, and looking in more detail at prepping for the Iron Maiden challenge. We'll wrap up with Dan's Intervention publishing plans. So please stay tuned.

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3 comments:

CultFit said...

Nicely written article, thank you!

Roland said...

Very nice review! I had no idea that there was an Intervention book coming out! Can't wait! I have his Intervention DVD set and love it!

I just got to see Dan at Perform Better, too. I never miss a chance!

Unknown said...

The truth is a funny thing. In Religious Studies, most of us HATE the idea that “there are many roads to the same truth.” It just doesn’t hold up to rigorous study.


I forgot the "doesn't!"

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